Growing up in rural Tennessee as the child of parents who were mentally ill and substance abusers, Elizabeth Ross’s prospects were bleak. Yet through pure determination, the support of her partner, and inspiration from her two children, she graduated from Columbia in May. This fall, she matriculated in an exclusive JD/PhD program at Harvard University in African American studies with a focus on mass incarceration and prison reform.
From age 16, Ross worked in hospitality and restaurant management. As a young mother at 25, she was diagnosed with Takayasu’s Arteritis, a rare, life-threatening, incurable disease that causes inflammation and damage to the aorta and its branches. She was forced to take permanent medical leave and give up her career. While seeking treatment, she incurred significant medical debt, and, as a result, lost her home and exhausted her savings, but these struggles only strengthened her resolve.
Determined to set a positive example for her children and advocate for health care reform so others would not need to suffer financially as she had, Ross became active in her community. Her partner encouraged her to return to school, and she enrolled at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, Tenn. She excelled as a student, maintaining outstanding grades that garnered her induction into the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) honor society. Eventually, she was awarded the PTK Distinguished Chapter Officer prize and a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Student Scholarship, which enabled her to attend Columbia, beginning in spring 2014.
“I found a family here at General Studies,” Ross said to guests at Reunion. “The advising staff is phenomenal. Along with the [Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship], my GS scholarship made it possible [for me] to come to Columbia.
“The support we found here was life changing—I can’t say enough good things about Columbia and the School of General Studies. I was able to join the Family Support Network, which was great with having two children.
“Coming to Columbia School of General Studies helped me change my life,” Ross explained. “It allowed me to have my two children see me walk across the stage as the first person in their family to graduate from college, and I know that they now know that they can do something like this. They can attend a school like Columbia.”